Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers, and Patricia Collinge
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ten of Ten Stars
Ennui-ridden teenager Charlie (Wright) finds her drab world filled with life and hope of excitement when her legendary, globe-trotting Uncle Charlie, the man she is named for, pays a surprise visit to her and family. But Charlie's delight soon gives way to suspicion, then fear, then terror as she gradually comes to realize that he is hiding a dark secret -- that he is a serial killer on the run.
This is said to be Hitchcock's personal favorite among all the movies he made, and he was well within his rights to be very, very proud of it. With a script that is absolutely perfect in every way, a setting that captures the essence of the idyllic small American town so perfectly that Ray Bradbury would be moved to tears, and a cast that all deliver great performances in parts it seems they were born to play, there simply is not a single sour note in this movie.
It starts with a script that deftly sets up all its characters and manages to draw them as fully realized, three-dimension people within minutes of their first appearances on screen... usually through subtle character actions or exchanges. The most impressive of these is the film's lead character, a typical whiny restless teenager who in a script from lesser writers and interpreted by a lesser director would have been extremely annoying and someone you might wish ill upon. However, the character is so deftly written here and her reactions so believable--a mixture of childishness and adult and perception of what it means to be an adult--that you are rooting for her almost from the moment she is introduced into the story.
The same is true of the opposite side of the coin, the film's other Charlie... a man on the run with a secret, who may or may not be a serial killer. Like Young Charlie, he is deftly established a few touches that are followed up with further development that lends texture and deep character to him.
These two characters, and the oft-referenced "special bond" that exists between them, are the solid center around which story and other characters rotate, each developed as they relate to the two Charlies and each eventually emerging as fully realized as they are. Even the "special bond" ends up taking on personality, evolving from childish imaginings born of coincidences to something more real and that gives sinister weight to either Charlie when the younger of the two promises she will kill the older one if he hurts her mother.
Heck, this script is so perfect that the insta-romance the develops between Young Charlie and one of the detectives who come into town on Uncle Charlie's tail doesn't bother me one bit. Where this has nearly ruined a couple other Hitchcock films for me, here it
Of course, as well-written as these characters are, they would have withered in the hands of the wrong actor. Here, the casting is so absolutely perfect that the actors have an exponential impact when it comes to breathing life into the characters. Casting Joseph Cotton as a serial killer, who up to this point in his career had played nothing but lovable good guys, was a stroke of genius, and petite Teresa Wright nails her teenaged character perfectly despite being 25 at the time this film was made. Even the bit-players--like the small town's librarian and traffic cop--fit their roles perfect and instantly make the audience feel they know the person in question.
The great script and the perfectly cast actors are further supported by a great location and even better sets. A problem I sometimes have with Hitchcock's American films is sometimes jarring and obvious difference between footage made on sets or the studio back lot versus footage made on location. The quality of the environments change so drastically that I am sometimes pushed out of being absorbed in the movie. Not so here. Location and sound stage merge seamlessly and undetectably to form a perfect whole.
If you only watch one Hitchcock film, this is the one to choose.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Starring: John Klemantaski, Matt Foyer, Noah Wagner, Patrick O'Day, Dan Mersault, and John Bolen
Director: Andrew Lehman
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars
While trying to get his uncle's estate in order, a scholar (Foyer) discovers a web of horror and madness that spans the globe.
"The Call of Cthulhu" is the most famous story by pulp fiction horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and it's one that conventional wisdom (and, frankly, common sense) said could not be adapted to the screen. And certainly not on a low budget. It's a story that literally covers five decades and spans the globe with four plot-lines--one featuring a demonic cult performing human sacrifices deep within a swamp and the police officer who interrupts them, of a doomed ship's crew who encounter an uncharted island and a gigantic monster during a savage storm, one of a mad that is driven mad by strange dreams, and finally the tale of the narrator himself and how he was driven insane by completing research started by his uncle and discovering how those other three events were connected in a terrible chain of cosmic cause and effect.
It's a story that's both grand in scope, with world-spanning travel and dimension-spanning devil-worship, and yet subtle and intimate in the sources from which it draws its horror, because the tale ultimately deals with a man driven insane when he realizes that humans are insignificant cogs in a machine that hums along as it creates through through actions that have no obvious connection yet are bound together through unseen and unimagined forces of fate and destiny. To top it off, even though humans are incapable of comprehending the vast cosmic destiny unfolding around us, if we get a glimpse of it, we are then driven to attempt to understand it or become part of it, lured to madness by the titular "Call of Chuthulu."
But the filmmakers and cast behind this movie managed to do the impossible. They not only created the most faithful screen adaptation of a Lovecraft story I've yet to come across, but they did while capturing the tone and flavor of Lovecraft's layered writing style.
And they did it for around $50,000... delivering a horror movie far better than ones made with 100 times the budget level.
Part of the success of this film actually grew out of its low budget. It caused the filmmakers to settle on the idea of making the film as if it had been made during the time Lovecraft's original story had been published. It let them build sets and props for less than it would have cost them to do in color--because there are things that can be more easily hidden in black-and-white than when shooting in color--and it let them take approaches to special effects that are perfectly acceptable in a movie with apparent 1920s production values but which would have been outrageously laughable if used in a film with a modern feel.
The shot a silent movie, with the actors doing their level best to capture the gestures and performance styles of performers from that that time and making the movie using a mix of vintage and modern techniques--working at the intersection of digital compositing, stop-motion photography, miniatures, and forced perspective camera angles.
The filmmakers were mostly successful in creating a movie that feels like it dates from the 1920s. I'm sure uber-geeks would be inclined to nit-pick it for featuring things like zooms and pans and otherwise having the camera moving during shots, but I didn't find those obvious bits of modernity distracting from the overall effect. Heck, they even avoided the pitfall that has ruined several other contemporary films made to look old... they didn't go overboard with the digital "aging" to the film. There's just enough here to create the illusion that I'm watching some almost-lost film transferred to DVD Alpha Video rather than something made in 2005, but they don't go overboard to the point where it becomes distracting and obnoxiously fake.
In fact, the only thing I that hurt my impression of this film is that they were not able to afford was film stock but instead shot on video.
The biggest weakness of the film is that it has that it has that slightly bland look that I've found to be the hallmark of so many shot-on-video films, with the highlights and the shadows not being as starkly contrasted as they need to be. And that harms this film is some places. It's not a fatal flaw, but it takes knocks it down from ALMOST PERFECT to just GREAT (and from a Ten-star rating to a Nine-star.)
That said, this is a great recapturing of a cinematic style that's been gone for almost a century now. It's also a film that makes one dream about what Robert Weiene, Guido Brignone, Fritz Lang, or even Alfred Hitchcock, might have with H.P. Lovecraft.
Here's a statement of great significance from NUELOW Games, relating to the Occupy [Whatever Open Space] movement sweeping America:
Because we desperately want to be viewed as important, we here at NUELOW Games are jumping on the band-wagon of media and celebrity celebration of the brave activists in New York City and Seattle protesting... um... something. Tomorrow, we will proudly bring you "ROLF!: The Pimp, The Protester, and The Po Po."
Here's the cover that Karl M. has created for the supplement:
(We're not sure how to spell "PoPo" but maybe we'll do whatever we damn well please in the spirit of civil disobedience. Fight the power--but just be careful you don't develop tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome from all that drumming!)
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